Great swatches of Canadian literature are occupied by a collective phenomenon I call phantom characters.
These are fictional human beings who don’t really emerge from the narrative, or assume rounded dimensions. They’re like individual blanks accompanied by a set of instructions from the author to the reader, on what to make of them. These semi-human personalities often have a mysteriously soulful presence and display extreme, but somehow poetically appropriate, behaviour.
Jane Urquhart and Michael Ondaatje love this sort of character, and now Vancouverbased author Lee Henderson, in his debut novel, The Man Game (Viking Canada, $32), joins their company. Numberone phantom character in the novel, set mostly in 1886 Vancouver, but intertwined with a narrative of the present-day city, is 17-year-old Molly Erwagen, married to Sammy Erwagen, quadriplegic bookkeeper to a Vancouver sawmill manager. Her green eyes, “flecked by a saffron cascade of fallen flames,” and her “moonlit” beauty have a preternatural effect on men, who view her as a “goddess.” One besotted male claims, “She’s how we know God exists.” Another man, in her presence, feels like “a peer to God.”
Why exactly they feel this way we don’t know. It must have something to do with that saffron cascade. This arbitrariness becomes a problem in the works of Urquhart and Ondaatje because sooner or later their phantom characters find themselves in a conventional narrative, but at least The Man Game, from start to finish, is an assay into the “unknown weird,” as one character puts it. Anything goes. Case in point is the “man game” of the novel’s title, an invention of Molly’s. The game is a rarefied form of pro-wrestling between two naked men — the nudity keeps the game “honest” — a combination of martial arts, dancing and acrobatics.
Like everything else in the narrative, this man game, a literary conceit, asks not to be taken too seriously. Interspersed in the pages of the novel are doodle-like sketches of combatants engaged in man-game manoeuvres with such fanciful titles as “The Totoosh Twister.” Henderson describes one move as involving “a lunging vaudeville stomp alternating with an operatic scissorstep, boldly slashing the crapulent leg off a genteel tiptoeing, building up speed with this half-drunken, half-musical stagger for the inevitable banana flip.”
In Canadian novels with phantom characters and phantom activities, one thing stands out as real. That is the landscape, particularly landscape in its most bloody-minded aspect. In British Columbia this means forest fires. Henderson’s description of such a conflagration at the beginning of his novel is even more vivid and grotesque than the epic forest fires in Jack Hodgins’s Broken Ground and Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road.
In between fires, the landscape in the novel broods like a “jungle.” The city of Vancouver itself is slimy and rotten, its muddy streets full of decayed logs, its open spaces overgrown with moss and fungus, its air tainted with the stench of dead fish. “There was no other place like Vancouver anywhere in the world,” Henderson writes. “It was slop and here a man was swine.” Life is made bearable for Vancouverites only by liberal amounts of tobacco, hashish, opium and moonshine. Civic manifestation of the “unknown weird” takes the form of a series of underground tunnels linking key points in the city, notably the local whorehouse.
With the parallel narratives of 1886 and present-day Vancouver there is no end of complexities in the novel’s structure. I haven’t even mentioned, in the 1886 narrative alone, such important features as a talismanic, life-giving form of pastry, an enigmatic character known as The Whore Without a Face and a recurrent theme of tensions between whites and Chinese. What it all adds up to is hard to say. A key symbolic character is Sammy Erwagen, whose quadriplegia echoes the Western divorce of the body from the head. His miraculous recovery of both mobility and sensuality is a kind of riposte to the Ladies Temperance League, whose members want to “beautify Vancouver’s streets” and “encourage sobriety, diplomacy, virginity until marriage and prayer.” Their activities go against the grain of the “unknown weird,” a plentiful commodity on the West Coast, where, according to one character in the novel, there are “no boundaries between natural and supernatural.”
At times the reader feels as if these narrative themes, and the author’s inventiveness, is mostly an excuse to display verbal exuberance, including the use of such phrases as “cromagnonically hairy” to describe a naked man. I myself like verbal excess, and there are certainly times when Henderson’s prose has a propulsive rhythm as well as a rococo vocabulary. Describing the forest fire, for example, he writes, “A swatch of mossy earth collapsed into a burnt-out hollow in the ground and all that fresh oxygen ignited, shooting antheridia into the sky as an array of squirming sparks.”
Bravo. But reader, be warned: There are 513 pages of this.